My love life was not going well. The woman I was dating had just told me that she was not interested in a serious relationship.
Needing a change of air, I decided to take a trip to Cuba to walk in Ernest Hemingway’s footsteps.
Ernest Hemingway – who spent winters in Cuba from 1939 to 1960 – was a great adventurer, a keen hunter, a war correspondent, an incorrigible drinker and a cultured man. He wrote seemingly simple sentences that kept to the fundamentals, ignored superfluity and let readers decide for themselves what the author meant.
I devoted the first day of my stay to a pilgrimage: I visited La Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s domain in San Francisco de Paula; I went to Cojimar, the village where Santiago, the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea, lived; and I stopped by the hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana where Hemingway stayed before purchasing a property.
Ernest Hemingway's study in La Finca Vigia, his property in the suburbs of Havana in Cuba. Visitors are not allowed inside the house where some of Hemingway's numerous hunting trophies are kept as well as part of his personal library.
I had six days left to quench my thirst in every (and there were many) drinking hole where the Literature Nobel Prize winner found solace from the hard life he was leading.
At seven o’clock in the morning, the sun would rise suddenly without wasting time with dawn. Exactly twelve hours later, night would fall without waiting for dusk.
After breakfast, I would take a walk on the easterly beach facing Florida. There were old bunkers everywhere. Cuba was still expecting an invasion from the United States: once bitten, twice shy.
One morning, as I was walking on the beach, I saw a group of men dressed in blue overalls gathering seaweed under the surveillance of guards who were sporting machine guns. I kept my distance. However, one of the men in overalls, on seeing that I was smoking, came to ask me for a cigarette. Immediately, I was surrounded by workers, all wanting a smoke. The guards quickly came to disperse them, telling me to continue on my way.
That night at dinner, a hotel employee told me those men were patients from a “psychiatric hospital” doing “community work.”
I never got used to seeing armed soldiers. I was also surprised every time I saw a vulture perched on a fence or a brahma bull grazing, the only bovine that seemed to be raised in Cuba.
A group of tourists are entering La Terraza in Cojimar, the village of Santiago the fisherman of The Old Man and the Sea. In the novel, the owner of this bar-restaurant was feeding Santiago and letting him have day-old newspapers so the old man could read baseball games results from the day before.
The locals I saw were often poor, sometimes dressed in rags. Despite this they had a striking dignity. They did not seem sad nor submissive. On the other hand, several times I was approached by Cubans who, sensing that I was a tourist, offered to buy my jeans or my shoes.
To better blend into the crowd, I started to wear khaki pants, a light white rayon shirt and sandals. This trick worked perfectly until somebody would try to start a conversation; my Spanish has never been very good.
On morning, on the beach, a tall blonde young woman came to ask me for a light for her cigarette. She spoke in Spanish with a strong English accent. I answered in English.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were Cuban,” she said.
“No problem; I see my disguise is effective,” I answered.
She laughed at my remark, took the lighter I handed her and we started to get acquainted while walking on the beach.
Margaret was Canadian from Ukrainian descent. She was a computer programmer, living in Saskatoon who was spending her vacation by herself in Cuba to improve her Spanish.
Although our hotels were only 15 kilometres from Havana, she had never been to the city. I invited her to join me for my daily outing in the afternoon.
We walked for a long time in the streets of La Habana Vieja. We visited small shops where ladies made cigars by rolling them on their thighs. We shopped in a bookstore. In a small record store, we saw the owner wrapping vinyl records in old newspapers to keep the cardboard jacket.
Margaret was a good companion. She was smart and curious about everything. She smiled easily and her laugh was infectious. I would be lying if I said that I did not like it when her hand brushed against mine.
It was a cloudy, hot and humid day. At the end of the afternoon, I suggested going for a daiquiri at El Floridita, one of Hemingway’s hangouts.
El Floridita is a bar-restaurant famous for its daiquiris, at the corner of Calle Obispo and Montserrate in old Havana.
As I opened the door to the bar for Margaret I noticed her giving me an odd look.
We sat side by side on one of the window seats against the wall, admiring the beautiful mahogany woodwork. There were three guitar players on a small stage at the back of the room.
As the waiter was bringing us our daiquiris, Margaret said:
“You are a gentleman. You open the door for me, you stand up to greet me, on the sidewalk you walk on the curb side. I have to say though, that I find it patronizing and a bit annoying after a while.”
I explained to her that in elementary school I had learned good manners. I applied them without thinking and I certainly was not trying to be unpleasant.
“That’s all right, I understand,” she said. “I just needed to let you know how I felt about it.”
“The Will of Woman is the Will of God,” I thought, promising myself not to offend Margaret anymore.
The musicians played well. The daiquiris were good. We lingered in the bar as it filled up with people coming back from work.
Margaret took my hand and laid her head on my shoulder. I felt good. The patrons were looking at us in a friendly way.
We had just finished our daiquiris when the waiter brought us two more. I tried to explain that we did not order any, that it was getting dark and we had to go back to the hotel. The waiter told us that the Cuban couple sitting at the bar was offering us these drinks. I looked up; they were looking at us, raising their glasses and smiling.
Courteously, I also raised my glass, nodding to thank them. After those two daiquiris, there were more; it seemed all the patrons in the bar wanted to buy us a round.
Margaret and I were laughing; the rum was making us tipsy. The guitar players came to play at our table. We danced. Our casual visit to the capital was turning into a joyful party.
Finally we managed to escape our hosts. It was very late and we had to find a cab to drive us back to the hotel.
The City of Havana shrouded in smog. In the background El Capitolio can be seen. The boulevard in the front is the Malecón, an 8 kilometre long esplanade stretching along the coast.
Margaret and I were walking and hugging on the sidewalk. We were quite drunk when I realized that I was walking on the curb side. Playfully, I swung Margaret around and, as she understood what I was trying to do, she burst out laughing.
At that moment, a car with embassy plates came speeding out of nowhere. The passengers were yelling in Spanish and one of them threw out of the window something that landed on Margaret’s blouse.
It was a freshly-used condom... If I had kept walking on the curb side it would have landed on me.
Margaret started crying. I tried to comfort her by holding her in my arms but to no avail.
We found a taxi and during the entire trip Margaret kept silent, sitting apart from me, looking nervously through the window.
She was staying at a cottage in a hotel a few minutes away from mine. I walked her to the door and told her how sorry I was about the incident that had just happened, and that it was a terrible way to end a day that had been otherwise so pleasant. Her wet eyes avoided mine. I took her hand one last time and told her I would stop by in the morning.
There was no answer when I knocked on her door the next morning. The desk clerk told me Margaret had gone out. I left a message saying I would be back later in the afternoon.
Margaret was not there when I returned around 4:00 PM.
The next day, the desk clerk told me Margaret left the hotel.
I never saw her again.
The fishing boats wharf in Cojimar.